Inside the dark and dingy room on the terrace of a house in Tirupur, Coimbatore--the textile hub in the southern state of Tamil Nadu in India -- six women are hard at work. "We have just two hours before the power is out and we have a target," Indumati shouts over the blaring sound of a compressor in the room. Cotton-like dust fills the humid room, but the women seem to be at ease even without masks. I cover my nose with a scarf as I watch them make the biodegradable sanitary napkins.
The women bought the machines from a company called Jayashree Industries a little more than a year ago. A social entrepreneur, Arunachalam Muruganantham, manufactures them in a neighboring town, Coimbatore.
The women faced resistance from their families: Their mothers-in-law told them, "it was as good as selling shit," and their husbands refused to fund them. So, they micro-financed the venture instead. With an initial investment of about $5,000 on the machines and less than $100 in raw material, they started production. Three of the teammates had never even seen a sanitary napkin before--let alone used one.
Mother Care Sanitary Napkins, as they call their product, has a range of napkins, from ones for heavier-flow days to panty liners. There is another variant for women who do not wear panties, which is particularly necessary in rural India. This variety has an elastic belt to hold them up.
The team has an interesting strategy that so far has generated sizeable profits: They sell napkins in small quantities, even one or two at a time. They've also sent napkins to Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Singapore after individuals and charity organizations there placed orders. This morning the team is working on an order of 2,000 napkins for Nigeria.
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Arunachalam Muruganantham's $500,000 business venture operates from a room smaller than a tiny New York City apartment. Jayashree Industries is based in Singanallur, another part of Coimbatore.
When he was 16, his father died and the science-loving teenager dropped out of school to support his family. His next life-changing event came when he married 17-year-old Shanti in 1998. His wife had never used a sanitary napkin, and she relied on an old piece of cloth for her monthly period. "Napkins are expensive. A cloth can be used repeatedly," she confessed to him.
In 2010, the research agency AC Nielson conducted a nationwide survey that found that 70 percent of women in India cannot afford sanitary napkins, and only 12 percent of the 355 million menstruating women in the country use them. Just 2 percent of women in rural India use sanitary napkins, even though three-quarters of the population lives there. "Even countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are better," says Bhagyashri Dengle, executive director of Plan India. (The NGO provided technical expertise for the survey, which was sponsored by a leading manufacturer of sanitary napkins.)
Many Indian women even use paper, sand, ash, or even leaves during their periods, and doctors warn that these unhygienic habits can lead to cervical cancer and other infections. Until two years ago, sanitary napkins had a luxury tax of 14 percent, but it was reduced to 1 percent after pressure from advocacy groups and NGOs.
"If the government thinks sanitary napkins are luxury items, how will it convince poor women to use them?" Dengle said.
Muruganantham was concerned about his wife using one piece of cloth for months at a time, so he gave her some sanitary napkins as a gift. A pack of six cost him 11 U.S. cents. (You now get the cheapest cotton pack for about 30 cents.) Muruganantham concluded they were indeed expensive for something that's only stuffed with cotton, so he set about trying to make his own.
Even though Shanti's response was not encouraging, Muruganantham was obsessed with making a napkin that would have win her approval. When Shanti refused to be his subject, he turned to his sisters, and when they warned him against pursuing such a "disgusting" mission, Muruganantham turned to medical students from his village. This sparked rumors about him befriending young girls "for sex," so his wife left him.
Muruganantham tried getting feedback from his students, but finding their one-word answers lacking, he decided to take things yet another step further. He decided he himself would wear a sanitary napkin, hoping the personal experience would give him an insight into why his napkins failed each time.
Muruganantham created a fake uterus using the innards of a soccer ball, attached a pipe to it, and filled the bladder with goat blood. He then attached this artificial uterus to a belt. When he squeezed the bladder, blood would flow from the pipe into the sanitary napkin.
For 10 days, Muruganantham lived a menstruating woman's life: He walked, bicycled, ate, and slept in this pretend-menstruating state. "I began to stink and stained my attire. Those were the most difficult days of my life," he says.
But the effort paid off. Frustrated, Muruganantham sent both his handmade sanitary napkin and the branded one to a laboratory to test the material each used. The results concluded that both napkins were made of cellulose. Yet, the branded napkins were effective; his napkins were not.
Meanwhile, there was more trouble. Villagers, who had seen him bleed, concluded that he had a "sexual disease" and that his genitals were bleeding due to excessive sex. The panchayat, the jury that rules on all moral and legal issues in the village, ordered his expulsion. Should he refuse, the panchayat said, Muruganantham would be tied to a tree in the fields until the evil that possessed him left his body.